Genesis of a documentary film-maker
Marianne Brace meets Mira Hamermesh whose admitted obsessions are "war, women and Jews"
THE INDEPENDENT, 1986
In 1942 Mira Hamermesh had a price on her head. Two hundred dollars was the sum Stalin demanded for each Jewish child leaving Lithuania for Palestine. Ms Hamermesh had already fled Poland one step ahead of the Nazis. Shortly after she and 200 other children left for Palestine the Germans attacked and massacred the Lithuanian Jewish community. With two such narrow escapes it's not surprising that this writer-director-producer of documentary films has as her presiding interest "war, women and Jews".
Describing herself as "impetuous" with "an obsession" and "wild imagination" Ms Hamermesh has her lighter side too and apologises for sounding like Marlene Dietrich. A recent operation has left her sounding husky. This voice is never heard on her films as she avoids narrative voice-overs, preferring to "find others who can speak for me".
Although Ms Hamermesh has been making films for over 25 years, it's only now that people outside the industry are starting to recognise her name. Two years ago, MAIDS AND MADAMS, about black domestics and their white employers in South Africa, won a clutch of television awards including the Prix Italia, a first for Channel 4.
Next came TALKING TO THE ENEMY: VOICES OF SORROW AND RAGE. Recording the visit of a young Palestinian woman from America to her Israeli friend, it shows them united by grief and a terrible sense of loss\, the one for her homeland, the other for his son killed in action. Both predict that "more blood will be shed". The film received high praise when screened and won two awards at the 10th International Women Director's festival at Creteil: the Prix de Publique, and an award presented by the association of French Women Journalists. A third film is being planned to complete what Ms Hamermesh calls her triptych but she won't discuss the subject in case it brings bad luck.
Arriving in England to study at the Slade school of fine art, Ms Hamermesh settled in north London where she still lives. She established herself as a figurative painter. But "painting is contemplative and I wasn't made for a contemplative life". Each week she queued at Hampstead's Everyman Cinema to see French film classics and realised that canvas could no longer compete with celluloid. The screen offered a "marriage between my love of story-telling and my visual flair".
Her entry into that world is the stuff of which films are made. "one day, after I was married and had a child, I was stung by the need to visit my mother's grave. But I didn't even know if one was allowed to go to Poland". In the winter of 1960 she set off for the industrial city of Lodz where she had been born.
The favoured child of her anglophile, businessman father, she recalls little intimacy with her mother. "She may have been tired; disappointed I wasn't a boy. Can't ask now". Remarkably, all three children survived the war but both parents perished. "Father in Auschwitz. The last transport. Mother died in the Ghetto".
Like Muna in TALKING TO THE ENEMY who, seeing her old home, is reduced to tears, she stood and wept outside hers. But her pilgrimage proved invigorating too, for she discovered a mansion she had strolled by as a child now housed the Polish Film School. Visiting it the afternoon Polanski's diploma film was being shown, she was "totally dazzled. I said to a student: 'how do you get to join that school?' And he said: 'Talk to the dean, he’s a snob. Speak English to him.'" Becoming the first westerner to get a scholarship Ms Hamermesh commuted between London and Lodz so as to be in England during her son's school holidays. Inevitably there were problems "It busted up my marriage. My husband didn't mind me being a painter because that was domesticated. But film was stepping out into the world."
Filmmaking did, however, consolidate another relationship, with her dead mother. "I feel I'm trying to explain the world she missed having a share in. So MAIDS AND MADAMS was for her." Four years of knocking on doors ended when Liz Forgan at Channel 4 commissioned the documentary. What attracted her was "the simple brilliance of the idea. It took me about 30 seconds to like it and quite honestly I can't think why other people thought differently."
Mira had no work permit and was turned back at the border. She only managed to enter South Africa as a tourist. She hired a local film crew and, despite being watched, still managed to smuggle film out daily - an act that required courage although she insists "I'm reckless, not brave."
What makes her work refreshing is her ability to take seemingly tired subjects and give them new life. "Personally I don't like the distinction between documentaries and drama. I like to tell stories. I approach a film as if it were a narrative, working with people the way directors work with actors".
Just as racism is one form of oppression to Ms Hamermesh sexism is "undeclared warfare". She laments the fact that "in every 20 films there's maybe one by a woman." Her diploma film was an epic called LESSON II, a story about prisoners of war. Such subjects tend to be regarded as a male preserve. And when she was starting out in the sixties, women were regarded as "a threat" if they went beyond the home and maternity. " You were betraying your true femininity, as if femininity is on trust and you have or don't have it according to how men evaluate you."
Ms Hamermesh feels that this country has had to wait for the arrival of Channel 4 to see "that women can bring something that has been missed to the screen." In the meantime she worked in Holland and helped to set up television in Israel.
But even the most experienced filmmaker has moments of doubt. "I used to tell students film-making is like conceiving a child. First you fall in love. Next you feel nausea. Then the delivery is the shooting and you feel like an abandoned single mother because the crew leave. You stay with this puking infant, make it stand on its feet. And you're on your own constantly torn by worries."